Ten issues mentioned in the wishlist below straddle the domains of threats, doctrine, organisation, equipment, specific conflict and personnel management.
This article does not pre-suppose in any way that India was insecure through 2016. Security is always a work in progress and there is nothing absolutist about it; it is always long-term in outlook. Yet, there are nuances which can be taken stock of, issues which have perhaps long been clamouring for attention but complexities of management have rarely afforded an opportunity to visit them.
There are some lessons learnt from handling various details which get lost in the plethora of considerations. Various ministries of the central government who have dealings with national security write annual reports and reviews. However, an unclassified document which spells out concerns for all to dwell upon and for review by strategic think tanks remains elusive. Perhaps the time for that has arrived and it could well be the precursor to a larger national security strategy/doctrine document which again has remained in ministerial files and never been available for Parliamentary debate or review by the strategic community.
The temptation is high to delve deep and come up with a comprehensive wish list. However, let me limit this to a few issues which need not be implemented through and through in 2017 but they need to be flagged, examined, and work on them at least commenced and monitoring established. The list is not prioritised and each issue has been taken randomly. However, they straddle the domains of threats, doctrine, organisation, equipment, specific conflict and personnel management.
National security strategy document
For too long has the nation done without transparency in the domain of national security. No one doubts the sincerity of the government in this all-important area, but in a nation where the understanding of national security itself has not matured, there is a need to enhance awareness. If a National Security Strategy (NSS) document is available and regularly reviewed, there will be far greater awareness and understanding. Currently, national security is considered the domain of the military and is associated with everything robust, although the military itself is hardly given the leeway to advise on this. In an emerging era when “hybrid” is the label for all kinds of conflicts which threaten the nation, this awareness has to increase. Perhaps 2017 can see the government making a bid to set up a body which will draft such a document.
The National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) is not in full-function mode. Perhaps the year could see it being restored and entrusted the task of finally delivering on an NSS document which need not be perfect and can be in two parts—classified and unclassified, just like most doctrines. Much work has gone into this in the past so it will not be a recommencement of primary research.
As a subset of this point, perhaps a push on the creation of the National Defence University (NDU) may be in order. This was a recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee. It took 12 years for the foundation stone to be laid. The need for giving it some impetus is because there is increasing interest in the country in matters strategic and we need an institution to satiate the thirst for knowledge in this crucial field.
Integration Of The MoD And Creation Of A Coordination Mechanism Between The MoD and the MHA
This is again a recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee which was attempted to be implemented in a patchwork way by creating the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). The Services HQs were supposed to be integrated with the Ministry of Defence (MoD), but except for the cosmetic alteration of designation, nothing else changed. At the very minimum, the MoD needs professionals with ground experience to handle policy making appointments. There are models from all over the world where uniformed officers perform bureaucratic jobs as part of joint military-bureaucracy teams. The Raksha Mantri has been examining this seriously but perhaps needs to commence an experiment with a few appointments. No one expects this to happen overnight with wholesale change but an initiation in 2017 would set the pace.
Coupled with the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, this would be a transformational change which will send positive vibes within the uniformed community which isn’t too happy about the state of civil-military relations.
The coordination mechanism between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the MoD needs a look, especially since border management is the domain of the MHA but contentious borders are with the MoD. A well-thought-out structure needs to be put in place and made to work for the national good.
Revamping Information Operations And Handling Capability
I never tire of stating that Pakistan realised the importance of public information and information warfare as early as 1949. It set up the Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) and progressively refined its entire approach to information as a domain. This has come into its own since 1989 when Pakistan launched its asymmetric war efforts in Jammu & Kashmir. Ever since the emergence of social media it has further refined its strategy. Sadly, there is no organisation in India, including within the Army, which is chartered to execute information operations. The domain of public relations, public information and information remains rooted within the archaic system of the PRO MoD which for no fault of its own is incapable or simply never considered as a General Staff arm.
The long and short of this is the fact that the nation is deficient of one arm of the security domain which in the modern world is one of the most crucial components of hybrid warfare. Even the commencement of realisation of the deficit may be sufficient, triggering the establishment of a study group to evolve and debate India’s information strategy for the future and recommend structures necessary for training and efficient execution.
Creation Of A Communication Strategy Board
India faces fault line problems arising out of its heterogeneous composition. The need for integration or mainstreaming can never be overemphasised. While there is a Minorities Commission in place, it can only address problems of the minorities and not of regional or people-based grievances which sometimes manifest as internal threats. No doubt the intelligence services monitor this but the social environment needs a perception-based handling, not a counter-intelligence handling, to convey the right information and change minds based on the correct narratives. J&K, North East and the Red Corridor have all witnessed large scale problems. These can be handled militarily through hard power but equally there is a need for a soft power approach too. For that, a permanent body which could be termed as the National Communication Strategy Board needs to be set up with representation from different walks of life to include military, police, intelligence, academia, media, psychologists and medical doctors, sociologists and even politicians who have a penchant for strategic affairs.
The tasks of this body could be worked out in detail but broadly it would be an ideating platform which would generate narratives and could even task agencies after due approval of the PMO or Cabinet Secretariat.
These have not been in a healthy state for long and there is a history of standoff which is denying the nation the benefit of the best services of both the civil and the military authority towards management of security affairs of the country. Issues of protocol, control, turf, budgeting and many other areas of discord are preventing the optimisation of the armed forces, something only our adversaries would be happy to note. There is no magic wand solution to this but a conscious beginning must be made to arrest and reverse the trend. Perhaps directions are necessary from the highest level to set up a permanent composite body to monitor and report the state of civil-military relations. Work towards this could commence in 2017.
One of the prime areas of concern for many years and almost through 2016 has been J&K. We have suffered the largest number of casualties in 2016. While reams can be written and advised on the management of J&K affairs, the focus area which must be kept in mind is that there is a flawed perception in the thinking of the security set up in Pakistan that it is winning the asymmetric war in J&K. This is the most dangerous thing because Pakistan considers its role in J&K as an existential issue for it. My advice would therefore be based on four issues all of which are equally important.
First, the benefits of good governance need to reach the people. The perception persists that much investment has been made in J&K but it needs more accountability to ensure the impact. Without impinging on the freedom of the state government, the central government possibly needs a department to handle J&K in a focused way and cater to governance needs in a fast track mode.
Secondly, all other aspects of security being equal, the significance of security of the rear areas needs attention, especially in the Jammu region where vulnerability appears higher, and this includes government installations, garrisons and soft spots such as schools. This attention could also expand into areas of North Punjab which may increasingly be in the crosswires of the planners across the border. Greater coordination between the Army and the police needs to be institutionalised.
Thirdly, the agitation in the streets through the second half of 2016 paralysed work in the Valley and also had Jammu seething. An ominous calm seems to have emerged, driven more by fatigue and exhaustion. It needs just a little tonic to get back to the negativism of 2016. In the window of 2017, a special strategy to reach the people needs to be made. This is no appeasement; an exhausted populace needs balm. How this can be done and done quickly should form the government’s focus. There are past best practices available which could be revisited with more consultation.
China, Russia And The US: The Big Power Game
There can be no security consideration without the China factor. The threat from China is likely to loom large, but equally, China is likely to be more focused on the US under Trump. India being an emerging strategic partner of the US could inadvertently get sucked into the vortex of the US-China rivalry. This would not be to its interest and therefore tightrope walking may have to be the cornerstone of its strategy. 2017 is likely to be a year of greater uncertainty as a new US administration wrestles with its security concerns. Russia is gaining greater confidence after its involvement in Syria and has been testing waters in Pakistan. Equations in big power politics are not zero sum games. India’s relationship with Russia is very important and this needs to be developed with messaging that given all other relationships, the India-Russia equation is extremely dear to us.
However, India cannot be restrained by the uncertainty of big power relationships. Mr Modi’s hard work through three years of foreign policy development will fructify now if India retains balance without compromising in areas where it has already scored, e.g. the rapport with Japan and ASEAN needs to continue in the quest for the development of the Indo-Pacific idea.
India cannot take its eyes away from Afghanistan. 2017 may well be a decisive year in the future of Afghanistan as a strong military-oriented administration comes to power in the US. No doubt Pakistan will play an important role in whatever the US does, by sheer dint of its geostrategic location. However, India, having built its relationship with President Ashraf Ghani, cannot allow its position to be diluted. If necessary, military support to the Afghan National Army in terms of some lethal capability may also be considered in consultation with other stakeholders.
The complexities of Afghanistan are well understood in India’s diplomatic community and this understanding needs to harnessed optimally.
Bangladesh, Myanmar And Act East
No security consideration in the current context can be complete without turning attention towards the East, and that includes the handling of India’s North East region. With Myanmar more stable, opened up and integrated with ASEAN, the situation begs for incorporating it as the virtual bridge to ASEAN along the continental continuity. With Bangladesh in the best state of relations with India, this is the time to exploit the Bangladesh-North East India-Myanmar continuum in turns of connectivity and economic corridors for the mutual benefit of the entire region.
Just as in the case of Nagaland, a more focused outreach in Manipur may convince the disparate groups of the opportunity for all.
China too is increasingly looking at the Maritime Silk Route and inner connectivity, which India is yet to be convinced about. Perhaps that may yet be early, but economics needs to be the driver for Bangladesh, Myanmar and North East India and through that to the rest of ASEAN.
The last of the issues needing continued focus is the requirement for development of military capability. It is not as if India is weak, but in recent times there has been a trend to find fault with every single facet of the nation’s military capability. No doubt our equipment profile is getting dated and the promised fast track induction of equipment has not fully fructified.
All three services have their problems. The creation of a Chief of the Defence Staff or equivalent will contribute to the degree of clarity in priorities. Recent reforms in procurement and indigenisation have been pragmatic but the execution may need more energy through some policy changes in personnel management for those who handle this domain. We need the initiation of processes which will ensure continuity. Much has been done but equally, much still needs focus.
There is also the field of ammunition which needs attention. In 2013, the nation received a bit of a scare when it was revealed that our capability existed only to fight a 20-day war due to the restricted quantum of ammunition. In 2017, this needs to be holistically reviewed and if imports have to be resorted to, the same should be done. This is one domain where we need transparency for reassurance of the public and messaging our adversaries who may take our overall war waging potential lightly.
There can be a host of other issues on which one needs to deliberate but there can be no doubt that the government is well seized of these. The only challenge in the complex job of running a government is how to remain focused and prioritised without allowing events to dictate the course. National security from a geostrategic angle will obviously remain a key concern.